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XXI Annual Meeting of the Friends of Aspen - Climate change and the air we breathe

Milan, 11/11/2019, Meeting for the Friends of Aspen

Every year there are millions of premature and preventable deaths owing to air indoor and outdoor pollution. Various sources provide differing data, but still there are millions of deaths (between 7 and 9), and 88,000 of these in Italy alone. Diseases that strike all the organs – brain, lungs, heart, and metabolism – and are always traceable to the effects of pollutants, many of which even cross the blood-brain barrier and are therefore neurotoxic. Of particular concern is the impact on the more fragile segments of the population, such as pregnant women and children.

Although still underestimated, indoor pollution is as important as outdoor pollution and has spurred new research on the relationship between climate change, air quality and mental illness. Indeed, the data show a correlation between the onset of mental illnesses in children – depression, schizophrenia, autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and so forth – and the setting and level of air pollution to which the mother was exposed during pregnancy. It therefore becomes increasingly necessary to move from the concept of healthcare as the treatment of disease to health protection as a comprehensive approach to people’s psychic/physical well-being.  

Among the main causes of bad air quality is vehicular traffic – and urban traffic in particular – on the one hand, and public and private heating on the other. The trend is currently toward replacing all motor vehicles with electric ones, but the obstacles to this shift – investments in recharging infrastructures and the availability of batteries – are still many. Electrification offers some attractive prospects in terms of heating buildings, along with the possibility of joining forces in making concerted efforts rather than individual ones. Building adaptation offers interesting possibilities – in terms even of private investments – for the creation of “green” jobs. From this standpoint, training and skills remain the crucial elements in the redefinition of the value chain. Strategic sectors also include agriculture, where neurotoxic pesticides have been shown to have an impact on mental health.

The obvious complexity of the topic is due to the countless links between air quality and climate, and the increase in the occurrence of extreme climate change events. What is needed, as opposed to individual undertakings, are multi-faceted strategies. Even the decisions by local administrators to improve air quality, often perceived as unpopular, recall the need for a national strategy and targeted information campaigns and awareness-raising efforts aimed at citizens and voters, and capable of leading to a shared sense of responsibility toward the society and the future generations.

Energy strategies that encourage the use of renewable sources, air quality strategies, life-style and behavior awareness, urban green areas, the forestation of the city, new guidelines on biomass combustion: all are pieces in the single mosaic of our response to the challenges of climate change in the city and elsewhere.

If today’s air pollution has reached levels no longer tolerable and no longer tolerated, the impetus to replace the model with a new one that combines ethics, innovation and sustainability is strong, along with the call for improved environmental quality and more specific monitoring. There is a role for every actor on this stage: institutions must foster virtuous behavior through policies steered by skilled guides and with the possible help of incentives; individual private actors and the business ecosystem must pursue development by adopting valid alternatives, keeping in mind that this is going to need at least a medium-term timeframe. In any case, the transition phase is also important, requiring, for example, the use of alternate fuels that reduce air pollution.

Responding to the challenge of climate change opens up opportunities for businesses, since sustainability transitions from regulatory constraint to business prospect. Sharing success stories and exchanging best practices can offer additional occasions for collaboration on effective system innovation.